NHLPA Goals & Dreams, players and Hyundai Canada make surprise donations
Twelve NHL players surprised Canadian youth hockey organizations recently with over $100,000 in equipment and monetary donations.
To grow up on the outside, to be pushed to the fringes socially, economically and psychologically, means learning to live in a state of invisibility.
It means learning not to take things for granted.
Even the simplest things. Like you and your hockey pals taking a trip across town to practice at a different rink.
And so, it was kind of a big deal when children from three youth hockey programs in Winnipeg, Ottawa and Montreal were surprised recently by 12 NHL players on behalf of NHLPA Goals & Dreams and Hyundai Canada.
Winnipeg’s HEROS Hockey group got to leave school early to go across the city to a rink for a recent practice.
There was even the promise of pizza after the outing.
“I had them right there,” laughed HEROS Hockey executive director Kevin Hodgson.
HEROS stands for Hockey Education Reaching Out Society, and since 2000 the organization has been using the game of hockey to help young people from Grade Four through post-secondary age feel like they belong. The successful grassroots program is now in 11 separate communities in nine cities and the number of HEROS participants has grown to around 18,000.
“Hockey gives them a sense of purpose and confidence and a sense of belonging,” Hodgson explained. “It’s breaking down barriers.”
These kids are not striving to play in the NHL, but it does not mean they do not have dreams.
Maybe their dreams are more modest than those of their peers. Maybe it is the dream of graduating from high school or going to vocational school. Maybe it is as simple as feeling important and believing that something can be achieved – notions that have eluded them in their lives.
HEROS AND SuperHEROS
On this day, 27 skaters with the HEROS and SuperHEROS programs, the latter of which makes hockey accessible to players with physical and cognitive barriers, made their way across town to a rink most had never been to.
Each of the children came with their own story, their own challenges and their own hopes.
By the time they went home they had been given one of the biggest surprises of their young lives, the chance to share their stories and their love of the game of hockey with members of the Winnipeg Jets.
Life altering? At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, yes.
The event was one of three NHLPA Goals & Dreams events put on by the NHLPA in conjunction with Hyundai Canada over the course of a couple of weeks in early December in Winnipeg, Ottawa and Montreal.
NHLPA Goals & Dreams has been making hockey accessible for the disadvantaged and underserviced around the globe since 1999, contributing more than $26 million to grassroots programs and helping more than 90,000 kids to those who might otherwise never get a chance to play the game and experience the joy of hockey.
Over the course of these three afternoons, members of the NHLPA’s staff along with players from each of the three Canadian NHL teams made lifetime memories for groups of mostly young players and their families. The events were a powerful reminder of the power of the game and how sometimes the simplest gestures have the greatest impact.
Jets captain Adam Lowry was one of the players coming through the door to meet the unsuspecting HEROS players in Winnipeg. His younger sister used to volunteer with the HEROS program in Calgary.
Hodgson knew Lowry’s dad, long-time NHL player and coach Dave Lowry, back when Dave was playing – and in fact some of the early HEROS players might well have been wearing some of his old San Jose Sharks gear.
Adam Lowry was joined by teammates Josh Morrissey, Cole Perfetti, Neal Pionk and Mark Scheifele in the HEROS’ locker room. Participants had their names taped to the side of their helmets so that NHLers could address them by name.
The reality is that many of the HEROS on hand in Winnipeg on this December afternoon do not know the players by face or name.
The same was true in Ottawa and Montreal.
When you are living in a home where sometimes there is a choice between rent and food, having a good cable package or reliable internet to keep track of the NHL is not a realistic luxury.
That is why there is not a lot of hockey talk, although Lowry did acknowledge with a laugh that a couple of Connor McDavid fans did give him the gears about Edmonton’s win over the hometown Jets the previous night.
Instead, there is a lot of talk about Scheifele’s passion for goats. How many does he have? What are their names?
The kids asked the NHL players about favorite ice cream flavours and families, which players had pets and what kind – and of course, what were their names?
These are kids who often do not feel like they are seen. They are kids who have been pushed to the side.
“They’re good at being invisible,” Hodgson said.
But when an NHL player calls them by name, looks them in the eye and is interested in what they have to say and what they are about, well, that is a pretty good fight against invisibility.
“That is rocket fuel for kids whose whole existence is not seen,” Hodgson said.
“We tell the kids they belong in the game of hockey,” Hodgson added. “When NHL hockey players tell them that, wow, that’s truth.”
Although the interaction between the players and the participants is what will make lasting memories there was a much more tangible component to these events. NHLPA Goals & Dreams donated 25 sets of gear to each of the community programs at the heart of the three visits.
"It was so much fun to have 12 NHLPA members join with Hyundai in Winnipeg, Ottawa and Montreal to help some fantastic programs across Canada with funding and equipment," said Matt Langen, Senior Manager, NHLPA Goals & Dreams. "The players were just as excited as the kids to be out celebrating the great game of hockey together!"
Hyundai added a $15,000 donation to each of the three groups, along with an additional donation in Atlantic Canada.
"At Hyundai Canada, we're excited to partner with the NHLPA to bring smiles to faces, across the country,” said Kristina Covello-Garcia, Hyundai Canada, National Manager, Marketing Communications. “Together, we believe there is no better time than the holiday season to share joy. It is heartwarming to be able to give these young hockey players a chance to meet their favourite professionals and provide them with the equipment and funds they need to play the game.”
Hodgson made sure to point out that if not for ice and equipment available to the kids, HEROS is just a good idea.
“We’re all in this game together. We can all do things to make it better and make if more welcoming and accepting for each other,” Hodgson added. “When players at the highest levels, the NHL or women’s players, come in and tell you ‘we want you in the game,’ it makes them feel like they belong. That’s why stuff like that is so important.”
Adam Lowry watched closely how his father participated in community events during his long NHL career.
It has since become second nature to Lowry.
“I feel like NHLPA Goals & Dreams, as a player, I think to have the opportunity to give back, to provide people with the opportunity to play the sport that has given us so much, is something that we really enjoy partaking in,” Lowry said.
Lowry talked about watching the HEROS players stream onto the ice after meeting with him and his Jets teammates.
“To get to watch them go out on the ice and interact with them on the bench and to see the joy,” Lowry said. “It’s certainly humbling. And it really provides you with a great perspective on how fortunate you are.”
“The sport teaches and offers so many great lessons,” Lowry added.
Whether that is being part of a team, developing relationships with coaches and teammates, learning to co-operate, leadership, dedication or accountability – those skills transcend the sport.
Given the rising cost of playing hockey, to be able to help break down some of those barriers to help marginalized or at-risk young people who deserve a chance to experience the game, well, it is easy to see why these are powerful moments for all involved.
“As a community I think it’s extremely valuable,” Lowry said.
As for running into a couple of McDavid fans, that, too, was part of the perspective.
“I said, yeah, he’s pretty good. I’d cheer for him too if I didn’t have to play against him,” Lowry said with a laugh.
A few thousand kilometres east, and a few days later, a similar scene was unfolding with the Ottawa Bandits hockey team at the athletic complex that houses the Ottawa Senators’ practice facility.
The Bandits welcome hockey players with intellectual, developmental and physical challenges to spend time on the ice every week.
For one participant that means getting on the ice and screaming about how much she hates hockey.
“That’s just what she does,” explained head coach and Bandits president Dave Christie.
For others it means coming to the bench after almost every shift and asking repeatedly which net they are shooting on.
But they are there every week, sharing in moments that would otherwise be denied them. For many it has become a safe place in a sometimes unfriendly, unyielding world.
“Our motto is hockey, friendship and inclusion and that’s what we try and accomplish every week,” Christie said. “It doesn’t matter what happens at school Monday to Friday if nobody talks to you. When you come on Saturday morning, you’re a part of the Bandits’ family.”
Every year, the Bandits play games against other local teams. The squads are mixed and invariably the kids from non-disabled teams find themselves enriched by watching the excitement the Bandits exude when they score a goal, or even at simply being on the bench playing with their new friends.
As the Bandits were getting ready for a recent session in walked Anton Forsberg, Mathieu Joseph, Zack MacEwen and Brady Tkachuk of the Ottawa Senators.
“It was just unbelievable,” Christie said. “It was a huge surprise.”
One of the older Bandits players had a new Ottawa Senators tattoo, which he proudly showed to his NHL visitors. That sparked some lively conversation.
That same Bandits player needed help tying his skates and MacEwen offered to help.
“An actual Ottawa Senator guy is tying his skates and chatting with him like they’re old buddies,” Christie said. “That’s probably the greatest thing that’s happened to that guy in his life.”
There are other events for the Bandits players and their families like Halloween dances and holiday parties with gifts, usually a Bandits sweatshirt or pajamas.
“Our parents tell us how much they love that stuff,” Christie said. “It’s a reminder to them that they’re part of something special.”
Christie shared the sentiment expressed in Winnipeg and Montreal, that the equipment plus the unexpected cash donation from Hyundai will help kids and their families not just in the here and now but for many years.
“It’s more like a legacy donation,” Christie said.
Asked if there was a special moment from the NHLPA Goals & Dreams event that will stick with him, Christie said it was like a wedding, a jumble of smiles and moments.
“It’s like how a wedding goes by so fast and there’s just so much excitement and joy,” Christie said. “Everywhere I looked there was just people laughing and smiling and happy and getting pictures and shaking hands.”
When Senators netminder Anton Forsberg walked into the dressing room in Ottawa a few days later he was immediately transported back to growing up in Sweden and the moments that he and his young friends met players from the Swedish elite league and how mesmerizing that was.
Forsberg had never been involved in an NHLPA Goals & Dreams event before.
“But I thought right away it’s a great thing,” said Forsberg. “It’s such a small thing and it means a lot for the kids.”
To see the pure joy of the Bandits players on the ice, it was nice to step away from the constant pressure of being an NHL player and the focus on winning and losing.
“It kind of brings you back a little bit to when you were a kid,” said Forsberg who said he cannot wait for his next G&D opportunity.
As Martin Longchamps of Montreal’s Ahuntsic Braves youth hockey group put it, this was Christmas before Christmas.
The Ahuntsic Braves are one of the largest and oldest hockey organizations in Montreal. The organization’s origins date back to the 1950s when one of the region’s most famous residents, Maurice “Rocket” Richard, supported the hockey group in its first days and long into his life.
Each year there are about 700 kids playing in the Braves organization. Many of those players’ families are first-generation or brand new Canadians who struggle to meet the cost of putting their children in hockey.
Longchamps has been with the organization since 2004 and is now the president. Through all that time, NHLPA Goals & Dreams has been a constant supporter.
“It’s huge. Because many kids with our programs need hockey equipment,” Longchamps said. “Hockey is a common language that helps for the integration of these kids to the community.”
This past week, to see the eyes of the 26 youngsters who took the ice with the support of Canadiens players Jake Allen, Mike Matheson and David Savard, players they have only seen on television, was inspiring, Longchamps said.
“For them that was a very special moment,” Longchamps said.
Montreal netminder Jake Allen has been in the NHL for more than a decade but it was after he started his own non-profit, Program34, that helps disadvantaged youth in his hometown of Fredericton, New Brunswick, that he really understood the scope of the program’s impact.
Four times Allen’s organization and NHLPA Goals & Dreams have come together with events to help youth in Fredericton.
“To give a little boy or girl this opportunity,” he said. “Just to be able to play hockey with their friends.”
It seems so simple and perhaps that’s why it’s easy to take these things for granted.
“It’s just realizing how passionate they are on the ice,” Allen said. “They don’t have a care in the world. That’s what you like to see.”
It was, also, a welcome pre-Christmas gift from the NHLPA and Hyundai as well.
“We feel that support, a partnership behind us to help us in our job with these kids,” Longchamps said. “It’s very important to see that we are not alone and that we have some help from great partners like Hyundai and NHLPA Goals & Dreams. It gives us another motivation to continue our involvement with these kids and the Ahuntsic Braves.”
On this day the kids from the Ahuntsic Braves program weren’t the only ones experiencing unexpected joy.
Along with the $15,000 donation to the three community groups, Hyundai also added an extra $15,000 to Allen’s non-profit to further support hockey in Atlantic Canada.
“I had no clue that was coming,” Allen said.
That kind of gift to the work being done in Fredericton, ranging from mental health initiatives to youth sports to equipment for a pediatric hospital, will give Allen and his group flexibility to undertake projects they might not otherwise have been able to consider. That includes consideration for a summer hockey camp for disadvantaged youth.
“It makes a great difference in various ways,” Allen said. “It’s the biggest donation that we’ve gotten.”
A CYCLE OF GIVING
It is possible the NHL players who showed up at these events will never truly understand what it means to have spent that time with these mostly younger hockey players and the potential long-term impact of such a moment.
They may never know if, perhaps in 10 years, one of these kids who looked up in awe while chatting with them will return to their community organization looking for a bursary to help with university tuition or to get into a vocational program or to help volunteer with these same groups with a different group of hockey players.
“And it will cycle back to the day that these guys came and showed that they cared, and these kids mattered,” said Hodgson who was honoured with the Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award in 2021.
The kids and volunteers from the HEROS event in Winnipeg were out for pizza after the event. As promised.
As the food arrived Hodgson asked his group what they thought they should do with the unexpected gift from Hyundai.
Buy more pizza, one youngster suggested.
There was laughter.
Then a young girl put up her hand and suggested they buy more gear so more kids can play hockey and have fun like they are.
Not sure there could have been a better answer.